Archive for August, 2015

Original Jelly Roll Blues

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on August 21, 2015 by telescoper

Well, it’s a sunny Friday afternoon here so I thought I’d wind down for the weekend by posting a nice bit of Jazz to end the week. This is a version of a famous composition (by Jelly Roll Morton) made by Humphrey Lyttelton with his Paseo Jazz Band. This consisted of the core of Humph’s band of the time – notably Humph himself on trumpet and Wally Fawkes on clarinet – with the addition of a large number of West Indian musicians whom Humph had met in London; the recordings they made together are an absolute blast, largely because of the fusion of traditional jazz with Caribbean rhythms. The sound contrasts with a lot of the “trad” jazz at the time, but is if anything more authentic than that of many revivalist bands of the period because it echoes the astonishing blend of cultures that was characteristic of New Orleans at the time Jazz was born. This tune in particular gets a rhythmic backdrop of congas, bongos, claves and maracas that gives it a lovely lilting feel. And on top of all the extra percussion there is Fitzroy Coleman’s guitar which was then, is now, and forever shall be, a joy. It’s a very original version indeed of the Original Jelly Roll Blues…

Why traditional scientific journals are redundant

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 20, 2015 by telescoper

Was it really six years ago that I first blogged about the Academic Journal Racket which siphons off millions from hard-pressed research budgets into the coffers of profiteering publishing houses?

Change is coming much more slowly over the last few years than I had anticipated when I wrote that piece, but at least there are signs that other disciplines are finally cottoning on to the fact that the old-style model of learned journals is way past its sell-by date. This has been common knowledge in Physics and Astronomy for some time, as I’ve explained many times on this blog. But, although most wouldn’t like to admit it, academics are really a very conservative bunch.

Question: How many academics does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: Change!!???

Today I came across a link to a paper on the arXiv which I should have known about before; it’s as old as my first post on this subject. It’s called Citing and Reading Behaviours in High-Energy Physics. How a Community Stopped Worrying about Journals and Learned to Love Repositories, and it basically demonstrates that in High-Energy Physics there is a massive advantage in publishing papers in open repositories, specifically the arXiv.Here is the killer plot:

citations_arXivThis contains fairly old data (up to 2009) but I strongly suspect the effect is even more marked than it was six years ago.

I’d take the argument further, in fact. I’d say that journals are completely unnecessary. I find all my research papers on the arXiv and most of my colleagues do the same. We don’t need journals yet we keep paying for them. The only thing that journals provide is peer review, but that is done free of charge by academics anyway. The profits of their labour go entirely to the publishers.

Fortunately, things will start to change in my own field of astrophysics – for which the picture is very similar to high-energy physics. All we need to do is to is dispense with the old model of a journal and replace it with a reliable and efficient reviewing system that interfaces with the arXiv. Then we’d have a genuinely useful thing. And it’s not as far off as you might think.

Watch this space.

Walky Talky

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , on August 19, 2015 by telescoper

One of the regular indignities we university teachers have to face is the “Peer Review of Lectures”, during which another member of teaching staff sits in on a lecture in order to give, hopefully constructive, criticism. I first went through this many years ago and among the negative comments made by my reviewer – who shall remain nameless – concerned my tendency to pace around while lecturing. I wasn’t aware that I did it until it was mentioned in that context but try as I might I haven’t really been able to stop doing it. It’s probably just nerves, but the excuse I usually give is that I like to present a moving target. Anyway, it’s not such a bad thing to move around when you’re lecturing, is it? A little animation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Or is it?

On the other hand, one can obviously take this too far. Anyone who saw Gordon Brown’s speech about the Labour leadership contest a few days ago will have seen this taken to an extreme. He moved backwards and forwards so regularly that it was almost hypnotic, like those ducks you see at a fairground shooting gallery. It was inevitable that someone would give him this treatment..

Jeremy Corbyn is 66.

Six Spitfires

Posted in History with tags , , , on August 18, 2015 by telescoper

I am indebted to James West for sharing this picture of no fewer than six Supermarine Spitfires seen earlier today over the Solent..


Six planes is half a Squadron. Seventy-five summers ago, during the Battle of Britain, such a tiny force would frequently have been scrambled to take on over 100 incoming enemy planes. And not only over the South of England. This day in 1940, August 18th, was a particularly tough one for the RAF and has come to be known as the Hardest Day, with heavy losses on both sides.

I can’t help reflecting upon the fact that the pilots involved in that momentous conflict were not only so few in number, but also so very young. Nineteen or twenty was typical, the same age as the undergraduate students I teach at work.

So few and so young, but without their courage and skill the world would have slipped into unimaginable darkness.

Lest we forget.

Have we reached Peak Physics?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 17, 2015 by telescoper

One of the interesting bits of news I picked up concerning last week’s A-level results is a piece from the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking A-level physics. The opening paragraph reads:

Although there was an overall rise of 2% in the number of A-level entries, the number taking physics fell to 36,287 compared with 36,701 last year – the first time numbers have fallen since 2006. The number of girls taking physics rose by 0.5%, however.

The decline is slight, of course, and it’s obviously too early to decide whether we’ve reached Peak Physics or not. It remains the case however that Physics departments in UK universities are competing for a very small pool of students with A-levels in that discipline. With some universities, e.g. Newcastle, opening up physics programmes that they had previously closed, competition  is going to be intense to recruit students across the sector unless the pool of qualified applicants increases substantially.

The article goes on to speculate that students may be put off doing physics by the perception that it is harder than other subjects. It may even be that some schools – mindful of the dreaded league tables – are deliberately discouraging all but the brightest pupils from studying physics in case their precious league table position is affected.

That’s not a line I wish to pursue here, but I will take the opportunity to rehearse an argument that I have made on this blog before. The idea is one that joins two threads of discussion that have appeared on a number of occasions on this blog. The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at 20% for over a decade. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same, i.e. 20%. In short, the problem lies within our school system. This year’s modest increase doesn’t change the picture significantly.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is simply not a useful preparation for a Physics degree anyway because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills, or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language, on both of abilities which university physics depends. Most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics when it comes to selecting “near misses” during clearing, for example.

Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do Physics A-level. Since all universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been successful.

I now believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level Physics entirely and only insist on Mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix at entry). I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists. Not all UK universities seem very interested in widening participation, but those that are should seriously consider this approach.

I am grateful to fellow astronomer Jonathan Pritchard for pointing out to me that a similar point has been made to drop A-level Physics as an entry requirement to  Civil Engineering degrees, which have a similar problem with gender bias.

Peterloo 16th August 1819: why it is important to remember

Posted in History on August 16, 2015 by telescoper

A perspective on the Peterloo Massacre, which took place on this day in 1819.

P.S. For those of you unfamiliar with the location of the Peterloo Massacre, it was at St Peters Fields, Manchester (iin the Midlands).

Kmflett's Blog

Peterloo 16th August 1819- why it is important to remember


16th August marks the 196th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre at St Peters Field in Manchester.


As EP Thompson noted in the Making of the English Working Class Peterloo, even in an age when the internet, mobiles and social media had never been thought of, was an event of national significance.

The numbers of dead and injured when the Manchester Yeomanry rode into a peaceful crowd protesting for the vote has never been finally substantiated, but aside from those killed it ran into hundreds in terms of those who received injuries from sabres or horses hooves.

Peterloo had several lasting impacts. One was the 1832 Reform Act. Another was the Manchester Guardian. The founder of the paper, Taylor, was a persistent critic of the Magistrates actions at Peterloo.

The detail of what took place on St…

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Sussex Physics – Among The World’s Best Again!

Posted in Education on August 15, 2015 by telescoper

After a hectic week, filled with loads of other Head of School type things besides UCAS Clearing, I’ve decided to take a rare Saturday off. I did however see some good news about the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex, so I thought I would share it here.

The latest (2015) Academic Rankings of World Universities (often called the “Shanghai Rankings”) have just come out so, as I suspect many of my colleagues also did, I drilled down to look at the rankings of Physics departments.

Not surprisingly the top six (Berkeley, Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Caltech, & Stanford) are all based in the USA, as are many others in the Top 100.

The top British university is, also not surprisingly, Cambridge in 9th place. That’s the only UK university in the top ten for Physics. The other leading UK physics departments are: Manchester (13th), Imperial (15th), Edinburgh (20th), Durham (27th), Oxford (35th). I don’t think there will be any surprise that these all made it into the top 50 departments worldwide.

Just outside the top 50  in the world is the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. For a relatively small department in a relatively small university it is a truly remarkable result to be in the Top 100. These rankings place the Department  in joint 8th place in the UK, just behind UCL,  level with Bristol, and ahead of Birmingham, Lancaster, Leicester, Queen Mary, Nottingham, St Andrews, and Warwick all of whom also made the top 200 in Physics.

Although I have deep reservations about the usefulness of league tables, I’m not at all averse to using them as an excuse for a celebration and to help raise the profile of Physics and Astronomy at Sussex generally.  I’d therefore like to take the opportunity to offer hearty congratulations to the wonderful staff of the Department of Physics & Astronomy on their achievement. 

With the recent investments we’ve had and further plans for growth I hope over the next few years we can move even further up the rankings. Unless of course the methodology changes or we’re subect to a “random” (i.e. “downward”) fluctuation…

Lock Me Away

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on August 14, 2015 by telescoper

In the NHS psychiatric test
For classifying the mentally ill
You have to spell ‘world’ backwards.
Since I heard this, I can’t stop doing it.
The first time I tried pronouncing the results
I got a sudden flaring picture
Of Danny La Rue in short pants
With his mouth full of marshmallows.
He was giving his initial and surname
To a new schoolteacher.
Now every time I read the Guardian
I find its columns populated
By a thousand mumbling drag queens.
Why, though, do I never think
Of a French film composer
(Georges Delerue, pupil of
Darius Milhaud, composed the waltz
In Hiroshima, Mon Amour)
Identifying himself to a policeman
After being beaten up?
But can I truly say I never think of it
After I’ve just thought of it?
Maybe I’m going stun:
Dam, dab and dangerous to wonk.
You realise this ward you’ve led me into
Spelled backwards is the cloudy draw
Of the ghost-riders in the sky?
Listen to this palindrome
And tell me that it’s not my ticket out.
Able was I ere I saw Elba.
Do you know who I am, Dr La Rue?

by Clive James

Fourier Series, Epicycles and Haemorrhoids

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 13, 2015 by telescoper

My attention was drawn to this little video some time ago by esteemed Professor George Ellis. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to share it here. It’s a nice illustration of the principles of Fourier series, by which any periodic function can be decomposed into a series of sine and cosine functions.

This reminds me of a point I’ve made a few times in popular talks about Astronomy. It’s a common view that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion  according to which which the planets move in elliptical motion around the Sun, is a completely different formulation from the previous Ptolemaic system which involved epicycles and deferents and which is generally held to have been much more complicated.

The video demonstrates however that epicycles and deferents can be viewed as parts the construction of a Fourier series. Since elliptical orbits are periodic, it is perfectly valid to present them in the form a Fourier series. Therefore, in a sense, there’s nothing so very wrong with epicycles. I admit, however, that a closed form expression for such an orbit is considerably more compact and elegant than a Fourier representation and also encapsulates a deeper level of physical understanding.

It’s nore entirely relevant to the rest of this post but I discovered last week – by reading a book – that Johannes Kepler suffered so badly from haemorrhoids (piles) that he did all his calculations standing up. I just thought I’d share that with you.

Clearing Advice for Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy Applicants!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 12, 2015 by telescoper

Well, tomorrow is the big day. This year’s A-level results are out on Thursday 13th August, with the consequent scramble across the country to confirm places at university. Good luck to all students everywhere waiting for your results. I hope they are what you expected!

For those of you who didn’t get the grades they needed, I have one piece of very clear advice:


The clearing system is very efficient and effective, as well as being quite straightforward to use, and there’s still every chance that you will find a place somewhere good. So keep a cool head tomorrow and follow the instructions. You won’t have to make a decision until 5pm tomorrow, so there’s plenty of time to explore all the options.

As a matter of fact we will have places in the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. Whether you’re interested in Physics, Astrophysics, Astronomy or Mathematics (or even a combination of those subjects), why not just take a look at the University’s Clearing Page and give us a ring? I’ll be helping out on the phone lines tomorrow myself, so I might get to talk to you in person.

Anyway, here’s a video featuring our excellent admissions team, led by the inestimable Rob Evans, to explain the process:

The 2015  National Student Survey results are just out and they show that the Department of Mathematics has a 94% rating for overall satisfaction; the Department of Physics & Astronomy has 91%. Click the relevant link for more information on our courses in Physics & Astronomy or for Mathematics!